"Heavy Construction," by Alpha Unit

The Dockbuilders of New York and New Jersey traces its beginnings to the late nineteenth century, when a group of men got together to form the Independent Dockbuilders Union. The union worked on the New York City waterfront, building docks and piers and driving piles for marine foundations and structures. They were granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor in 1907.
After a fire destroyed its records in 1910, the union reapplied for a charter. That was when the Dockbuilders Union became the object of a tug-of-war between two other unions, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and the Bridge and Structural Ironworkers Union. Both these unions claimed the dockbuilders as part of their jurisdiction.
The AFL didn’t agree with either of them. It saw dockbuilding as a specialty trade and reissued the charter. So two dockbuilder locals were formed – the Independent Dockbuilders Union and the Municipal Dock Workers. The Carpenters Union wasn’t about to give up on the dockbuilders, though, and by 1914 was pressuring the dockbuilders to affiliate with them.
The Independent Dockbuilders gave in to the pressure. The Municipal Dock Workers would not. Along came the Ironworkers Union, claiming Municipal as part of its jurisdiction.
The AFL ruled that there should only be one dockbuilders union in New York City. So Municipal joined the already affiliated Independent Dockworkers as part of Dockbuilders Local 1456.
Commercial divers who did welding and installed piling in and around New York City had formed the Marine Divers and Tenders Union in 1920. By 1973 the divers had affiliated with Dockbuilders Local 1456, too.
Jurisdictional claims such as those in New York City are why piledrivers locals across the country are a part of the Carpenters Union. Pile drivers are described, in fact, as the elite of the carpentry trade.
Pile drivers are the first work crew on a construction site. They’re the ones who do all the foundation work on piers, wharves, drydocks, bulkheads, bridges, highway overpasses, skyscrapers, and parking lots. Pile drivers install piling – structural columns of wood, steel, or concrete – on the ungraded site.
Specifically, a pile driver lays out from blueprints the exact location of the piling and positions them correctly, then drives them into place. He (or she) then caps the piling after it’s been driven and prepares it to receive the superstructure.
This type of work involves strenuous labor. There is a lot of lifting and rigging involved and a worker will at times have to climb a piledriving lead – the track upon which a driving hammer runs – to properly align a pile beneath the hammer. Some of the leads are well over 100 feet tall.
Pile drivers get their work done with various types of heavy equipment like excavators, drilling rigs, and diesel and hydraulic hammers. They build but they also perform demolition work. Some of them are commercial divers who work in marine construction installing piling for offshore oil rigs and other projects. The divers weld, perform inspections, and handle salvage operations.
As you can imagine, this is difficult, noisy, dangerous work.
It takes about four years to become a journeyman pile driver. Whether you work inland or offshore you can expect to spend considerable time away from home. In addition to your regular work hours you’re likely to have extended periods of overtime on some projects. A pile driver has to travel, too, sometimes long distances.
Pile drivers, or “pilebutts” as they sometimes call each other, take great pride in what they do. To them, the undeveloped earliest stage of construction is the hardest to work with. But it can be rewarding for anyone who’s good at it – and becoming really good at some aspects of this job can take years. An experienced union man’s kindly advice to brand new apprentices is Keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Go to work every day willing to learn and the senior guys will show you the ropes.

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9 thoughts on “"Heavy Construction," by Alpha Unit”

    1. Well, I grew up in a very stable Black community where all the adults around me were stressing how important it was to get an education. They were very encouraging and supportive of kids who took that message to heart. Also I had lots of music lessons growing up. It was a stimulating environment for me.
      So you are in middle school right now. I’ve taught your age group. Do the trades interest you?

    2. Alpha is probably about as Black as your average US Black person.
      She attended UC Berkeley and was in the Master’s Program there.
      She is smart as a whip. She is smarter than almost all Black people I meet and smarter than most Hispanics too. I think she is even smarter than most White people I meet, most of whom strike me as morons.

    3. I’m not really political. Like everyone else, I have to consider politics but more often than not it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils.

    4. Mostly classical. But I grew up listening to just about every type of music you could hear. Gospel, jazz, blues, country, R&B, soul, rock – it was all playing in my house.

  1. AU, is there anything public academia can do about the achievement gap?
    Or does it come down to things like home environment, and expectations among the peer group?

    1. There’s no way to completely eliminate an achievement gap. Kids will never be all the same and neither will circumstances. But if your parents are loving and attentive and are doing everything they can to make sure you turn out well, you’re in a good starting position.

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